When Your Infant is Secretly Famous in Japan

Meet Stephen Rout, the child who spawned an entire Japanese subculture after his baby picture was uploaded to the internet in 2000 — a subculture unknown to his family until nine years later.

Matt Gross tells Rout's story in the New York Times Thursday Style section, ten years into the phenomenon and, this being the Times, complete with a paragraph-long defition of "meme." Comical reader hand-holding aside, the full story of Stephen's saga is an interesting one. His transformation into pop sensation began when a user of Japanese imageboard 2chan.net turned his baby picture into an interactive web application (pictured), in which people could add arbitrary text to a cartoon-style talk bubble next to Stephen's head. From there the meme exploded

Stephen has a pompadour in one, a head full of snakes in another. His face was pasted onto Kurt Cobain's head, carved into Mount Rushmore and tattooed onto David Beckham's torso. He was an eight-bit video game character. He became a three-dimensional sculpture.

Somehow, Stephen's smiling face had permeated a corner of Japanese visual culture. It showed up on wacky television game shows, and occasionally it blotted out images of genitalia in pornography, to comply with Japanese law.

That last role earned Rout the unfortunate nickname "Japanese Gay Porn Baby," but when his father Allen learned how his son's picture was being used — just last year — he didn't mind, reasoning that "that the meme really had nothing to do with Stephen qua Stephen - the photo was being treated as a kind of open-source stock image." That's a remarkably sane response. Saner still, Allen Rout thinks it would be vulgar to try and turn his son into a YouTube moneystream. It's enough to make you forget he raised a porn baby.